The Maintenance Crew At La Villette

John Cage’s Europera 5, to quote Mode Records’ promotional copy, “is a collage scored for two singers, each singing five arias of their own choosing from the standard opera repertoire. A pianist ‘accompanies’ them by playing six different opera transcriptions. They are joined by a single 78-rpm victrola-player, playing six historical opera recordings and a performer playing a pre-recorded tape, plus the use of a radio and a silent television.” That goes on for an hour.

Is it an insult to call this idea a joke? Or a joke in reverse? A joke distills the humor out of what would be an interminable situation – say, being stuck on a desert island. It tends to zero in on the slight Boolean overlap between the banal and the exceptional, so as to let a little bright light into the banal. In the same way that you might enjoy the view, or the feeling of the wind on your face, while scaling a mountainside to visit a guru, you might find some pleasant moment of enlightenment in Europera 5. Are you more likely to find it there, or in a plain old opera?

Maybe it is more fair to consider this from the opposite angle. Consider Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise as a drawing. It’s a good drawing! Imagine sitting down with your violin and playing it. That would be worth doing. It would be equally worth doing to sit with a group of people and try to make it through the whole thing together; you would be justly proud of yourselves. Now: imagine sitting outside of that magic circle and trying to listen.

What I am trying to say is that if a cultural form – say, classical music – has persisted, it has done so through the participation of a coalition of groups. Parvenus, enthusiasts, monomaniacs; musicians, composers, audiences; luthiers, promoters, publishers; each partakes in the form, some more and some less. If they all make a common form legible through their common effort, each party also makes its own bids to distort elements of the form to suit its own preference. Having made their own perfected version of the form, they might look around, disappointed that the rest of the coalition has not responded to it.

A multitude: sample of botulism bacteria.

I sat down with S M L XL the other day again after who knows how long. Have you had the experience of encountering yourself in a book, not because someone else got you, or felt the same way you do, but because you had already incorporated a piece of the book’s DNA in yourself, and had all meanwhile been copying that template into your own thought, to the point where you had forgotten where the initial gene transfer had come from?

For today’s reader, the book acts as a perfect stent connecting today and the mid-1990s. The pieces on Atlanta, on Singapore, on the Generic City, all accurately identified our future unequally distributed through what was then the present. Ever since, the book has lay there consistenly pointing out these chaotic conditions to young (or young-ish) designers like me who might just as easily have overlooked them. The virtues of S M L XL as a whole – completeness, curiosity, a dedication to realism – were as rare and valuable then as they are now. Somehow, those qualities were not what got imitated by OMA’s ambitious peers.

It is worth asking: what is it about this book that is not simply a well-engineered promotional container, or even a social venue for those in the OMA orbit to come together through? What is there about it that actually communicates to the reader a unity above and beyond the sum of its parts?

reddit place
A multitude: the r/place subreddit.

I’ll layer another question on top of that. If OMA can create such a multitude in a book, why do they twice fail to create a park? A building might be condemned to be a place, they noticed, but a landscape need not be. In line with their observations of weedy generica through the world, OMA tried in both of their park competitions to shape a space that would not be a place - a space to do things with things, with the absolute minimum of inertia. Both La Villette and Downsview are meant to accelerate the interesting parts of the urban condition, to multiply points of change and transition in one space. If La Villette is not just a fairgrounds with a few hangars, it is in its effort to maximize friction between known things, such that the golfer’s ball rolls from the formal garden into the farm.

If this is urbanity, it certainly isn’t the Atlanta version, which metastasizes the indifference baked into the older urban situation – the way that people two inches apart agree to pretend that the other doesn’t exist. To drive to an appointment at an office park is precisely not to experience any overlap, but to pass through one thing after another. Another way to get to that: a bunch of landscapes in a field are different from a skyscraper in that there isn’t a structure to keep them apart.

So the speed and extreme juxtapositions of the OMA parks are meant to show urbanity wriggling at the end of your fork, to make plain what otherwise gets papered over in a procession of tropes. They engineer a series of broken pieces, because urbanity appears when urbanity fails. Or: an urban condition is looking forward to seeing the urban condition break down for someone else. Tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you lose your head.

ananta shesha
A multitude: Ananta Shesha, pictured with Vishnu and Lakshmi.

A park or a city is only the sum of routines that goes into it. Every kink in the routine becomes its own headache. This is particularly interesting at La Villette, where the competition organizers tied themselves into knots to disqualify OMA’s design, just because no one wanted the responsibility of keeping it afloat, of sweeping the sand of the desert back off of the tennis court. If there is one thing that OMA does not seem to understand, it is ecology, in the sense that ecology is the sum of the dull routines of dull creatures, creatures very stuck in their ways. (Look at the Koolhaas Houselife documentary to see the trouble that ensues when the idea, the joke, has to be tended, haunted, repeated.)

Both competition entries pride themselves on the “irrigation of territories with potential,” and when pressed describe a first remediation to make their sites plantable. Would you trust an extension agent who told you exactly how to water and fertilize your field the first year – and said nothing about how to harvest it, or even weed it? Without proposing a novel and workable model of collaboration that stretches into the future - ideas being dropped in occasionally, care being poured in incessantly - we will only get more of what we already have, which may be Singapore or, sorry to say, Columbus.

If I can try to pull all of these strings together into a knot, it would be to say: it’s enough to expect an idea to be a shining exception, a crack in the wall, without expecting it to intimate, to imitate, a whole society.

(October 2021)